This Shoal of Space:
Zoë Calla & the Dark Starship
(World's First E-BookPublished On the Web in 1996 For Digital Download)
a Dark SF novel originally titled Heartbreaker
by John Argo
Part I-Chapter 2
Part II-Chapter 66
Monday while it was still dark, a rain storm rolled in from the Pacific, coating San Tomas Peninsula in smoky gray clouds. Traffic was slow as ZoŽ drove the kids to school in Roger's van.
Cars had their lights on. The statues in the schoolyard looked pale, mouths oooed, cheeks hollowed, in outrage at being wet and cold. Tears of rain dribbled down their sentimentally pampered and nunnishly approved holy faces.
At the paper, ZoŽ borrowed a blower and dried her curls in the ladies' room. Nine a.m., time to make the run several blocks over to the PD to cover The Police Blotter. Should she drive her car? Walking was out of the question, because rain was beating down. More clouds moved in and it got darker.
As she put on light makeup, she noticed Jules in his fishbowl office. Jules was looking at a piece of paper, which he stuffed into his pocket with an upset look. A moment later he was on his way out. He wore a hat that shadowed his face. The collar of his raincoat was up. He almost took the door with him.
"Jules!" she called, thinking to get a ride. But he did not hear. She chased him down corridors while putting on her raincoat. She started to worry, and did not call again. She ran down the crowded main stairway ten steps behind him, buttoning the nylon rain helmet (Andre Feuillť, very in) that made her look like one of Max's space ladies.
Shoulders hunched, Jules shambled along the spattering sidewalk. ZoŽ phoomphed her umbrella open and followed. It rained so hard she thought the umbrella fabric would tear. Jules looked like a soggy mushroom stub, walking, holy crap, he wasn't getting into his car, he was sloshing through the puddles like a robot. ZoŽ bounced over the puddles, flew around pedestrians and trash cans, risked death by speeding bumper and angry horn, as she followed him, and gradually his direction became evident.
Looming ahead in the mist was the Burtongale Building. Jules headed straight for its Gothic maw. ZoŽ remembered her phone calls, and the ensuing wreckage of her car, and felt a twinge of fear. But if Jules were in trouble, she must help him.
The Burtongale Building was a brick and marble relic of the 1880's. A block large, it resembled the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Its four large towers looked like a bricks standing on end, each twelve stories high like the number of Apostles. On top and all around were pointy spires sheathed in green copper. Shreds of fog drifted from dark window to dark window. Some of the windows were round, like eyes. At each third story was a ring of marble, done no doubt by the same sculptors who'd cobbled together the courtyard at St. Andrew's. Armored angels with swords stood ready to defend Burtongaledom. Gargoyles squatted, cheeks in hands, and projectile-vomited fresh rainwater. Cherub babies floated in heaven offering lilies to Greek-looking ladies. These ladies had plump asses, wore nightshirts, and looked like they were high; the Muses, ZoŽ recognized as she got closer. Each muse stood on a globe wrapped in a ribbon, and you could make out names on the ribbons: Clio/History; Erato/Love; Urania/Astronomy; what went on in those old Greeks' minds? ZoŽ wondered; or for that matter in the minds of the dotty Burtongales of a century ago?
Over the entrance was a bigger figure, a woman with a shroud over her head, and her head sunk into her palms, her invisible but tortured face clamped between banana-sized fingers: Memory, it said simply, as though that spoke for itself. ZoŽ thought of her ordeals at Dr. Stanislaus'. Rain waterfalled from Memory's fingertips.
ZoŽ watched the heavy brass door pinched shut behind Jules as he entered it.
Seconds later, she splashed up the stairs and entered the past century; well sort of, except for the newsstand in the corner selling lotto tickets, OffRoad Thrills Magazine, UCST pennants, and Cruel Death rock posters. The newsstand was the only genuine source of custard-yellow, homey, Mom-like light. The rest of the place was like a gelotype of a Depression rail terminus; a black and white stipple of milling, murmuring figures whose cigarette smoke rose into a bluish haze under watery skylights. The ceiling, like that of Grand Central Terminus in New York City, was a dim carpet of gilded stars and Zodiac hours. The endlessly rising walls, pillars, and Gothic arches were done in blue and yellow tiles, except for concrete fluting and marble cameos.
Jules was nowhere in sight. ZoŽ went to the receptionist in the middle of the lobby. She recognized the whispers there from her earlier phone conversations; all the whispers converged here, a world's worth, from men and women pouring up and down the stair cases and across the vast floor. The reception podium was womanned by three elderly ladies. "I'm looking for Mr. Loomis," she whispered. Her voice seemed to have turned itself down to Low.
"I can't hear you, darling," writhed a lipsticked mouth amid wrinkled putty.
The woman cleared her throat. "Mr. Loomis." She pointed to the east stairway.
ZoŽ ran and just caught sight of Jules's hunched figure before it disappeared around a turn. ZoŽ ran after him.
Up, up, up. Around, around, around, dizzyingly, dodging bodies. Feet rattled on peanut-brittle marble. As she went up, the bodies became fewer and then it got quiet.
She slowed, listening. Heard a squeak of wet shoe leather. The slam of a metal elevator cage. The whine of an engine, shudder of a greasy cable.
She ran up; the stairs continued; but the elevator door opened on the stairwell, seemingly without sense, between floors. PRIVATE, a sign read. A brass pointer above the door, black with age, moved across a spectrum from XIII to XIV to XV and stopped at XVI.
There were (she worked the Roman numerals in her mind) sixteen floors? Not twelve?
The elevator rumbled.
The pointer dropped back down to XIII and stopped. A few men and women in raincoats (dry; out for early lunch?) walked down the stairs, giving her curious looks.
She banged on the elevator door. The lift rumbled open, a worn wooden box with a plain seat and a bare bulb, 25 watt. She pushed open the accordion gate and entered. The door rumbled shut; the accordion gate snapped shut.
She regarded the four knobs marked XIII XIV XV XVI and hesitated. Go right up to XVI, as Jules had? She was chicken. Okay, compromise. She pushed XIV. The elevator rumbled up about ten feet and stopped. The door opened.
She stared through the accordion gate and gasped. Across a cigarette-smelling corridor with Art Deco pictures were a row of high, narrow windows. The windows and their wall tilted inward and were slightly curved; she understood why, immediately: She was in one of the spires above the building!
An elderly man, so white he might never have seen light of day, trudged by. ZoŽ froze, terrified that she might be noticed and tossed; worse yet, lose her job at the paper. The albino-like gent wore a baggy dark suit and carried some hoary ledger under one arm. His eyes had a vacant look. Did sixty years in the spire of the Burtongale Building do that to you?
ZoŽ pressed XVI; hell with it; go all the way. The elevator rumbled up ten, twenty feet and stopped. The door rumbled open, and again ZoŽ gasped. Several men in fatigues stopped what they were doing and stared back at her. She recognized Air Force from the wavy upside-down white on blue chevrons with the star in the middle on each man's arm patch. Several had no arm patch but little shiny lapel bars and gold or silver oak leaves; those must be officers.
ZoŽ felt as if the top of her head had fallen off, exposing her brain.
It was cold up here in the last teeny story before the spire turned into a pencil point. That was because the windows were wide open and you could see across miles of turbulent charcoal colored clouds, and a rainbow far away, and piled high white mountains of cloud. Gulls screamed as they flew by. The airmen had set up an array of instruments. She saw glowing screens, radar blips, sine waves. She saw telescopes aimed at the earth, the sky, and the sea. She saw that the men stood ankle-deep in wires and cables of every color.
"Who are you?" one man asked.
"Restricted area," another said.
A third started for the cage.
ZoŽ pressed XV and the door rumbled shut; the man got his arm out just in time. She heard shouting above as the elevator slid down a story and stopped.
The door rumbled open and again ZoŽ gasped. Jules lay in a pool of blood, crumpled on an oriental rug in the middle of a still-small, but larger than XVI, room.
She tore open the accordion gate and ran to the body. "My God. Jules!" She knelt by his side. There was blood on his head. He looked pale and did not seem to be breathing. Nearby lay a fireplace poker, its pointy end gory. A tuft of Jules's hair was stuck to it. In adrenaline slow motion she touched his carotid pulse while her other hand reached for a phone. Next to the phone, on a wood-and-leather desk, were two jars, each of which held a human head inside.
She multi-tasked: "Hello? Hello?" (No pulse). Was the killer lurking nearby?
"Main desk," a lady pronounced carefully.
"I'm in the east spire on floor fifteen. There is a man here who is dead or dying. Get help up here."
"That area is off limits," the lady intoned.
"He's lying in a pool of blood. And there are two jars with human heads in them."
"You should not be up there."
"Will you have mercy and just send the police, you cow?"
"Someone will be up shortly to aid you."
No pulse; no... She rolled him over, opened his raincoat, and started CPR. He had eaten onions with breakfast. Igghh. She was still pumping furiously when ambulance attendants rushed in carrying a first aid box between them. Jules moaned. He opened his eyes, looked at her, and whispered: "Sorry..."
She shrieked. "Jules! I thought you were dead."
"I thought OUCH"(he touched his gash; through pooling blood, among islands clots, the white of his skull showed)"I thought I was dead for sure."
"What are you doing here?"
"Shush, lady," said one of the attendants, "this guy's in and out of shock." Jules's lips were blue indeed, and his eyes glazed. He touched her shoulder urgently, lips trembling. "ZoŽ... I'm sorry"(why, Jules?)"really really sorry, didn't think...it would go this way. Ask Vic. Forgive..."(Jules!) He slumped backwards.
"Out of the way!" men said. They wrapped Jules in blankets, placed him on a stretcher, oxygen-masked his waxy face, and carried him out. "He'll be okay," the men assured her as the door closed. There wasn't room for her, so she waited in the small room. Her knees knocked together, and she looked around for a place to sit, maybe some water to drink. Sure enough, there was an ancient, bronze wet bar. She filled a heavy, fluted glass with tap water and sipped. Only then did she have the time, the presence of mind, or the courage to look.
Two gallon pickle jars sat side by side. Their wide-mouths were rubber sealed. Their thick glass lids were wire-clamped shut. She regarded the faces with revulsion and pity. The first was that of a white-haired old man. His blue eyes were wide open; flat; lifeless like those of fish on ice at the store. His mouth was slightly open, a bit more on one side or the other, as if he were about to remark about some subject of great surprise. She remembered Vic Lara's lecture about dead people's expressions and was not so sure. The other was a younger head. Its eyes were closed and looked as though he'd gone down with a pair of shiners. The mouth was closed, perhaps in a last sob. She recognized the Viking hair, the beard stubble, the herpes sore on the chin: Christopher Marlow, Moonboy's pal from the Jungle. Was the other guy Wallace Burtongale, the old man who was Roger's boss? She couldn't be sure.
She stared at the enigmatic, silent heads. They were unable to tell her anything, so she took a broader overview of the place: Someone's office. Opposite the elevator shaft was a cold fireplace. The poker holder lay tipped over on the rug.
Daylight filtered in through four stained-glass portholes. The pictures were of grinning, naughty 1890's girls. The light was the color of beer, coming through tubes from narrow, shuttered windows in the inward tilting walls. She snapped open one Venetian blind and looked down upon the street far below, dizzying.
A gull streaked past.
Walking to the desk, she found a pile of news clippings. Burtongale, they all seemed to say. So this was where the Mad Clipper had been preparing those packets she was getting. "Hudson's Auto Body, 13051 State Route 495," read a yellow copy of the receipt for her car. And in a shoebox were several license plates. She looked through them. WARNED2. WARNED3. U-R-DEAD. Someone here had bats in the belfry, and it wasn't her. She pulled a packet of state DMV vehicle registration certificates out of the shoebox. She looked through them, and a pang shot through her: Frank MacLemore, each said. Application for Vehicle Registration Approved. Each of them... yes of course, the car had been Frank's at one time.
The elevator door opened, and she whirled, clutching the papers to her belly but they fell on the floor. Vic came out of the elevator. He was just snapping the security snap on his holster. When he saw her he stopped; his long coat fell shut, hiding the gun. His eyes took in the jars on the desk, but focused on her, on the papers at her feet.
"Vic, I think you guys have some explaining to do. Why all this?" She waved a hand over the desk. "Why the GI Joes a floor down? Why Jules here on the carpet? Why Wallace Burtongale and Christopher Marlowe in aspic?"
"Easy, easy," he said raising his hands and coming closer.
"Don't easy me," she said in a low, furious voice. "Just tell me the truth, okay? Why the DMV? Don't mess with my life any longer."
Vic scratched his head. "Let's have coffee."
Secure in a nook at Vogelmann's, with coffee and Danish, ZoŽ accused: "Jules told me to ask you."
His fingers were smeared with butter and he licked them. "ZoŽ, you're gonna think I'm nuts but here goes. You know those planes you've been seeing? Guys in vans?"(she nodded)"The government's been in town for the last three months or so investigating strange magnetic forces. The Navy and the Air Force are both especially interested, because they have some ultra-secret low frequency communications equipment. Suddenly they started getting weird signals, interfering with their own. All over the world they got these signals, and they track them down to little old San Tomas here. So they bring in the vans and the planes and the little guys with the thick glasses and curly hair, and before you know it we have ourselves a circus going on. Meanwhile, we've got people dying at the zoo, as you discovered. They were dying from simple heart failure up 'til three months ago, but then it changed; people dropping in comas. And meanwhile Gilbert's friends with the cloven hooves are stepping up their parties around town. I wonder who brought the two heads up for review. I'm still missing a few pieces of the puzzle, but yes, I'd say it's probably all tied together. Your buddy from the zoo is part of it too."
"Roger?" She felt all color drain from her face. She saw Vic's satisfaction, and hated him more than ever. "What does Roger have to do with all this?"
"They all know, ZoŽ. Chatfield, the Bishop, the Burtongales..."
He looked at her with eyes like steel marbles. "I'm gonna tell you this, and if you breathe a word to anyone, I'm going to never mind your salsa or peppers or whatever, I'm gonna make tiger snacks out of you. They all know, ZoŽ, and I guess you have a right to know. There is an alien space ship buried somewhere around here, or in the ocean, and the government is quietly going nuts trying to find it."
He gripped her wrist.
"Sorry." He let go.
She eyed him furiously, rubbing her wrist. "I've had dreams about it. There's a bomb or something. And I hope it blows up in your car! With you in it."
Vic ignored her jibe. "There are signals coming from somewhere in the ground or the sea in our little town, and they are full of chatter. But it's not American chatter and it's not really of this earth. It's data, it's analog, it's real-time, almost like"(he paused, straining his memory and understanding)"almost like tests you run when you're putting together a very complex thing like a space shuttle. Or fixing it."
"The government thinks it's aliens," she intoned in a you-got-me-now voice. Her mind mega-processed, trying to remember any aliens she might have seen lately. The little old man with the ledger? "How about you, Vic? Are you a Martian?"
He brushed her flippancy aside. "ZoŽ..."
"And who clobbered Jules just now?"
Vic looked contrite. "I talked him into this."
"What? This had better be good, Vic."
He raised his arms in a W of innocence. "The situation just arose and a quick decision was needed. Jules called me and said he had been handed a strange note that came in to the night operator. Wallace Burtongale asked you to stop by his office this morning. Jules was worried about you. He knew you'd been getting clippings from someone."
"Who knows; depends on how long his head's been pickled. I traced the clips through the company messenger service. They were coming from up there on Ex-Vee East."
"What is Ex-Vee East, Vic?"
"This room. XV East. Fifteen East. Wallace Burtongale's private office as corporate chairman of Burtongale Inc."
"Which owns American Canoga Insurance and Kane King Kahn Attorneys, among other things?"
"Oh you are sharp, ZoŽ. That's why Wallace tried to reach you."
"The old fart in the jar?"
"The very one. Maybe you can get Roger Dodger to explain that to you. Oh by the way, while looking for Wallace, I passed by your favorite building at the zoo."
"Oh sly wit. No, the Pagoda"(she raised her eyebrows)"which is now about drowning in some kind of white shit that the government boys are flipping their lids trying to analyze. Has Rodger Dodger told you any of this?"
"Stop calling him names. No."
"Then he's a secretive fella, and you'd better watch yourself."
"Thanks," she said bitterly.
Vic said: "I suggested that we let you come here"("Vic, you prick!")"sorry, and me of course hot on your pretty little heels"("you son of a bitch!" She banged her fist on the table)"sorry again, and Jules agreed. Then, give him credit, he changed his mind and decided to go in your place himself."
"Expecting what?" she said, a hot tear in each eye as she snapped her purse shut and turned to get up.
"Well, one person comes to mind"(Gilbert, she thought) "although thanks to Jules's humanism we may never know..."
"You were in on the license plate scam," she said. "And my car getting stripped. You and Wallace. You made a fool of me." Her great story! The story that was going to make a careersuddenly it looked as though she'd be on obits for ever, if she was lucky at that.
He made a W with his arms again. "For your own good. Wallace was a good man in his way. He knew about Gilbert's insane obsession for you. Now we know for sure that Wallace also knew about the rest of Gilbert's activities."
"You mean the devil worshippers. The baby killers."
"Yeah. He didn't want to see his son fried, but he wanted to meet with you; warn you."
"Are you sure?"
Vic shrugged. "It's the best I can come up with."
"You filed for several registrations in Frank's name, using your connections with the DMV, and you were going to give me..." She frowned. "Did you have anything to do with the computer that night?"
He looked baffled. "Huh?"
"The second warning," she said.
He shook his head.
"Vic, I'm really pissed at you." She told him about Max nearly being a wolf and snarling at her and she dousing the breaker to snap him back. But there was a doubt now in the back of her mind about the warnings. Vic had faked one, but who had done the second?
Vic looked increasingly alarmed. "ZoŽ, keep him away from any electronic stuff like computers, okay? Something is acting out there, maybe trying to cover all San Tomas with a grid of wires in this foamy stuff, maybe trying to signal to outer space, or who knows what?"
"So you never did give me a second warning," she said, still angry at him anyway.
"No. I was about to, but I couldn't find the right time. You're always zipping around in your car, trying to solve things the whole government can't seem to piece together." He stirred his coffee, his face aglow with reflectiveness. "Did you know? All the Burtongale men go nuts about age forty or fifty. Wallace was sick, but he was a mild case. Gilbert checked out earlier, and he's a complete psycho."
ZoŽ rose. "Good luck with your case." She took a deep breath. "So long, Vic."
He looked apologetic. There was one thing about his look that gave her satisfaction; it was one she'd seen in several men she'd walked away from: a look of undying regret that he would never, ever know what she was like between the sheets. Maybe it wasn't much, but it was at least a small victory, of sorts, for truth, justice, and the American way.
Copyright © 1990-1996-2014 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.